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Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2002
Sori picks up the ball
Why hasn't Masayuki Suo made a movie since 1995? It couldn't be money, since the director of the hit comedies "Shall We Dance?" and "Shiko Funjatta (Sumo Do, Sumo Don't)" is as bankable as they come. But backers would no doubt prefer Suo to make yet another movie about odd but lovable characters, struggling through to glory in an amusingly uncool sport (as with ballroom dancing in "Shall We Dance?" and sumo in "Shiko Funjatta"). And Suo, I suspect, would prefer to do a header off the Rainbow Bridge first, or at least find a truly new wrinkle on his winning formula -- not an easy task.
Others have taken up where Suo left off, however, including Itsumichi Isomura with 1998's "Ganbatte Ikimashoi (Give It All)" (girls' rowing); Shinobu Yaguchi with last year's "Waterboys" (boys' synchronized swimming); and now Fumihiko Sori with "Ping Pong."
These films are not Suo knockoffs (though Isomura's was produced by Suo): "Ganbatte Ikimashoi" is a perceptive, nostalgia-tinged, coming-of-age film, and "Waterboys" is an eager-to-please, all-stops-out comedy with a gay sensibility. And "Ping Pong"? Based on a five-volume manga compilation by Taiyo Matsumoto, it lies between the two other films on the drama/comedy scale.
Its characters are recognizable-enough adolescent types going through common adolescent crises, but it unfolds in a hyper-intense, hyper-strange, hyper-cool parallel world, in which everyone seems to be wearing some sort of character mask and playing ping-pong at mach speed, with slick CG effects to highlight the critical moments.
First-time director Sori, a CG-effects whiz who apprenticed with James Cameron on "Titanic" and has since worked on "Himitsu (Secret)" and "Beautiful Life," is understandably at his best making ping-pong balls buzz like electrons in a particle collider and stopping time in a crucial match for white-light, life-changing epiphanies. He is less successful, however, at sustaining narrative drive, particularly the sort of "will they make it?" suspense that powers most sports movies.
The film focuses on two boyhood friends, nicknamed Peko (Yosuke Kubozuka) and Smile (Arata), who grew up playing ping-pong. They are both experts at the sport, though the eternally boyish Peko loves it with a hyperkinetic passion, while the prematurely middle-aged Smile regards it as "something to keep me occupied on the way to the grave." As luck would have it, Smile is a ping-pong genius, who wins while barely breaking a sweat (and never cracking a you-know-what), while Peko, though an accomplished hustler at the run-down ping-pong parlor where he learned the sport as a boy, has never stepped out of his friend's formidable shadow.
At the annual inter-high-school ping-pong tournament, Peko faces Sakuma (Koji Okura), a shaven-headed, bespectacled lunk who belongs to the best team -- but happens to be one of its weakest links. The captain, the equally bald, but far scarier-looking Dragon (Shino Nakamura), is the strongest. Poor Peko, however, can't even get past Sakuma -- an opponent he has run circles around since childhood. His confidence in ashes, he retires to the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Smile faces a tough hurdle in China (Sam Lee), a long, lean exchange student from Shanghai who has played at the national level in his home country and has a sublime contempt for the Japanese game. To motivate his star to play at his peak (or at least show more than his usual disinterest), Coach Koizumi (Naoto Takenaka) makes a deal with Smile: If he wins, he can do as he pleases, but if he loses, he must submit to Koizumi's special training regime. Smile readily agrees, with contempt flickering across his deadpan face. "He'll lose," Koizumi predicts -- and turns out to be right, but in a way that jolts Smile out of his shell.
There is always next year, as well as the second and third acts, however. Peko quits the team and hangs out at the ping-pong parlor, while Smile sludges through practice, as uninspired as ever. Meanwhile, the ostensible bad guys turn out to be human, too. Sakuma, who scored zip in his match with Smile, has left school altogether, as a protest against an unfair world. Though the winner of the tournament, Dragon slams balls until his paddle hand is a bloody mess, convinced that if he relaxes even a moment, his game will collapse and his fragile ego will implode. China, his losing opponent in the final, writhes with injured pride. Will the boys -- all five of them -- find their groove? The answer is obvious, but the ways in which the film arrives at it aren't.
Kubozuka, who swept acting awards last year for his performance in "Go," plays Peko the way a young Jim Carrey might, as an angelic zany, with a Lloyd "Dumb and Dumber" haircut. He's just this side of grating. Arata, a former model who first burst to prominence in "Beautiful Life," creates in Smile an anhedonic nerd who makes Woody Allen look like the Optimist of the Year. But there is also something winning about the shy integrity and tender heart of this dour kid. The real kick in "Ping-Pong" is not watching him win, but seeing him, finally, live up to his name.